Tears of a Kook

By Rosy Rockets

petulia-richard-lester.jpgPetulia, 1968

Petulia, Richard Lester’s neglected classic of the late sixties, is an adaptation of John Haase’s novel Me and the Arch Kook Petulia. It strikes and often deters many as no more than a Frisco fresco in Pepsi red, polo white and penguin black. Much of the dialogue, mostly during the first act of the film, is delivered in aphoristic TV dinner portions which sound like slogans and song titles. However, if one traverses the trivia and looks beyond the frivolous furnishings, perhaps even turning the sound down, the existential turmoil and simple human need throbs from the screen. The captivating paralinguistic prowess of the lead characters drives the parade of flesh and frills, beautified and bloodied in turn. Julie Christie seems at first to be shockingly miscast as the “arch kook”, a title which one might sooner ascribe to Goldie Hawn or Shirley Maclaine. Christie’s sexy Sussex diction and composed charisma jar with her character’s measured, deliberate attempts at eccentricity – more arch than kook. However, the cause of this studied, shallow play becomes clear once we have learned from whom she is straying when she approaches Archie, the unassuming divorcee doctor. “I think I’ve found a cure for cancer,” is one of her many blithe non-sequiturs – the cancer of consumer culture? Petulia has mummified her body in haute couture and her heart in a cancerous marriage. Her husband David (Richard Chamberlain) is a charming and witty man whose apparent borderline personality drives him in seconds from playful romantic to extremes of tragic self-loathing and violent jealousy - and Petulia, like many women in abusive relationships, sees it as her duty to forgive Hyde for love of Jekyll. Chamberlain subverts his frequent role of gallant, whether prince, count or doctor, with a brilliantly balanced portrayal of beauty and beast. Perhaps Petulia’s forced eccentricity is a way of escaping his violent outbursts, serving to amuse and distract both him and herself from the trouble in plastic paradise. The reluctant white knight of this story is hook-nosed handsome Archie (George C Scott); his paternal reserve is irresistible to his women. Scott cited this role as a personal favourite, and above Chamberlain’s ice queen and Petulia’s daydreaming doormat, even above Shirley Knight’s tender and complex Polo, his is the richest and most moving performance.

petulia-richard-lester-2.jpgPetulia, 1968

Petulia besmirches the bright socialite Bakelite of her privileged non-existence with sardonic remarks, like the used-nappy coloured tie-dyes which interrupt Archie’s white walls. She trails after Archie clutching a tuba and a broken rib, and seeks his healing hands in more than a medical capacity. This particular injury begs to be read as a signifier of some of the film’s central themes – anti-capitalism and the exploitation of women through fashion – as championed during the late sixties by the counter-cultural Spare Rib magazine. Meanwhile, the set dressing draws from the Hearst Corporation’s Popular Mechanics, or perhaps McCall’s magazine, famed for futuristic features such as The Kitchen Of Tomorrow. Pauline Kael, sacked from McCall’s for dissing The Sound of Music, also attacked Petulia, focussing particularly on editor Antony Gibbs’ “insanely obvious” style. His jumbling and juxtaposition is certainly garish, but even fridge poetry can be beautiful. He makes channel hopping cuts to and fro from pristine peripatetic to plasma red rock rants, from thankless living to Grateful Dead. Nic Roeg’s way with colour and rhythm lend maturity to Gibbs’ View-Master approach, and their sensibility marries well with director Richard Hard Day’s Night Lester’s vacuous, jejune surreality. However, Kael was as influential at that time and as able to make or break a burgeoning artist as Beavis and Butthead would be in the equally disaffected consumer culture of the early nineties – and her critical eye may have contributed to the fact that Petulia has until now been a difficult film to track down for home viewing.

Some critics found Petulia’s character two-dimensional and tasteless – and yet her full-bodied persona is there to be seen. His ex-wife Polo and his lover Petulia reflect through the prism of Archie, and this is spelled out in mirroring scenes in which each woman makes a petulant comment about the other, for Archie to retort “You haven’t even met her” and each woman responds “I just have to look at you”. Archie’s bedside manner and honest humility sets him apart from his toe-dipping, dance crazed contemporaries. “Why do we have to eat tapas? I’ll have the corned beef […]”. He vents his pent up frustration in a game of squash, whacking a black ball about a white arena, pre-empting the 1972 launch of Pong but reversing its colours. His key scene which brings Polo to visit him, with the intention of announcing her new romantic engagement, breaks the glitchy veneer of the first act, and Archie’s cool finally breaks when Polo persists in anxiously primping and fussing about his bachelor pad. From here on, any but the most casual observer will be invested in these characters and open to their depth.

petulia-richard-lester-3.jpgPetulia, 1968

In this vision of San Francisco, the people don’t happen to the city – the city happens to the people; rendering them rats in sterile labyrinths. Richard Chamberlain’s Dantès *SPOILER* escaped from the Chateau d’If in The Count of Monte Cristo, but when Archie takes his sons to explore Alcatraz, it is a harmless tourist attraction. This reflects the life-sentence of all the characters – a cross between a tourist attraction and an island penitentiary, to which they have committed themselves for want of any other purpose. “Warren says you can get out of anything if you want to bad enough”, Archie’s son tells him, but nobody can escape anything in this film, because nobody wants anything badly enough. Consumer man-traps such as the dummy televisions in the hospital, installed to provoke purchases, match Petulia’s romantic choices – just the promise of a pretty face was once enough to win the heart of Petulia, whose effusive words to her husband on their wedding day were rejected with a playful and yet portentous “I’ll never be able to compete with myself”. And so desperate is the need for everything to be picture perfect that the battered and bloodied Petulia of the second act endures her convalescence in silence, and once recovered makes ridiculous reference to her ordeal in reassurance to Archie – “I fell on my bottom…” “I get hiccups” and “I just burp a lot”. The facile front of the film, which caused many reviewers to reject it as fluff, has in retrospect a tragic patina as the slogans and quips give way to open hearts, and as Petulia describes her gift to Archie (an artificially lit greenhouse), ultimately shows us “something alive in all this steel and glass”.

Rosy Rockets is a freelance journalist based in Cambridge.